By: Annette Perez Issue: Transformation Section: Government The Denver Forum hosted Kathleen Kennedy Townsend at the Oxford Hotel on May 9, 2012. She was in Denver because of the 50-year anniversary celebration of the Migrant Health Act. Typically, Townsend gives a speech based on a story from her past; however, her presentation was based this time on theory. She questioned the audience, “What’s going on in this country?” She is worried that as a country we are tearing each other apart, and not building a nation. “I believe that a nation works best when all people feel they can participate. I think it is part of human nature to be part of a mission.”
She continued, “America was founded as a mission into the wilderness, and every American felt they were part of that mission.” Townsend explained that during World War II, every American did his/her part somehow—whether fighting in the battles, working in the factories or obeying the wage and price controls. Everyone participated and was proud to be an American because the effort connected them to each other. She shared with the forum a passage about John Winthrop’s metaphorical ‘shining city’—that described the America he imagined. This passage was read to the troops by President Dwight D. Eisenhower before the invasion on D-Day, by President John Kennedy the day before his inauguration speech to a special session of the Massachusetts Legislature, and by President Ronald Reagan in his final address to the American people.
Unfortunately over the past 30 years the model of collaboration and working together has turned into a focus on “me—how can I do better? How can I pay lower taxes—rather than considering the whole, we only think of ourselves.” Townsend went on to explain that when her uncle was president, he was asked to define happiness. President Kennedy said that “happiness was the full use of powers along the lines of excellence.” Townsend asked the forum audience to imagine what happiness was as defined by us. She said, “If you don’t have a system that allows you to use your talents, it’s hard to be happy. The metaphor in the ‘shining city’ reflects the abiding truth that we use a political community for happiness to work. Today, unfortunately, the rhetoric of happiness focuses on private acts, assuming it’s an individual’s personal responsibility to find satisfaction.”
Townsend explains that over the past 30 years America’s notion of community has been shrinking. She questioned if the American Dream is all about “me.” She continued with stories of her grandfather and how her family used to pay more taxes so that everyone benefited. “Back in the day there was no question of people with a higher income paying higher taxes,” she said. In the end, “Happiness has nothing to do with money, courage, self-sacrifice, honor, duty or stoicism—these are the essential virtues of democracy, and none of them can be bought. These values are lost when we enter a world where greed is good. A nation needs to instill virtues and values of selflessness important to survive,” argued Townsend.